Christian Swinehart’s “CYOA” (2009) is a meticulously documented meditation upon the choose-your-own-adventure books popularized by various franchises during the early-to-mid 1980s, including, for example, Bantam’s "Choose Your Own Adventure!" series, Pocket’s “Which-Way Books,” D&D’s “Endless Quests,” and Zork’s “What-Do-I-Do-Now” books. To summarize the content of this work is to do an injustice to its form, since Swinehart’s “CYOA” functions simultaneously as a piece of literary criticism, an example of data visualization, and a clearly presented analysis in the vein of what might be termed "interactive structuralism" (an emerging critical-creative form that allows the reader to “play” the text of an entire adventure and see the reading and narrative patterns she generates as she traverses through the work and responds to the various options that the text presents).
CYOA is divided into four sections, including 1) an essay about the project, 2) animations that show all of the potential reading pathways the text allows, 3) a gallery of 13 images, each of which offers a breakdown of the various reading options of a different book, beginning with CYOA’s The Cave of Time and ending with a “Date with Destiny’s” The Night of a Thousand Boyfriends, and 4) “play,” which allows the reader to interact with the entirety of Steve Maretzky’s Zork: The Cavern of Doom (1983).
This piece puts into relief some of the challenges in identifying how electronic literature both emerges and departs from printed texts. By visualizing the different pathways available to the reader, it demonstrates in an elegant fashion the recursive, looping structures of such works and thereby makes a visual case for how they function as non-linear narratives. This offers something that Paley’s TextArc www.TextArc.org>, for example, does not, in that it uses statistical analysis to reveal not only patterns within the text, but patterns generated by the reader.
By offering the reader a chance to “play” The Cavern of Doom, Swinehart’s project also complicates the distinction between reading and gaming. In fact, this is one of the most interesting claims that the piece puts forward, i.e., that Choose Your Own Adventure books are ludic in nature. Swinehart offers compelling evidence of a ludic turn in the genre’s progression from offering several desirable outcomes to few (or one) super outcomes, something he highlights in his interactive version of The Cavern of Doom, which “scores” the reader once she’s reached an end point (full disclosure: this reader-player got 2/10). Hence, while Swinehart’s analysis is supremely convincing, it also engenders more questions about distinctions between reading and gaming that should be—pun intended—kept in play.